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The Different Challenges of Quitting Alcohol versus Drugs

The Different Challenges of Quitting Alcohol versus Drugs

Alcohol is chemically similar to other addictive drugs, but is more widely and publicly used than other addictive substances

Psychoactive drugs are chemicals that affect mood or behavior and may alter consciousness or perception. They can exist as solids, liquids, or gasses. There are various classes of drugs, including opiates and opioids, stimulants, hallucinogens, cannabinoids, and depressants. Drugs are also divided into the categories of prescription drugs, such as clonazepam, and illegal drugs, such as cocaine. Although it is sometimes spoken of as separate from other substances, alcohol is chemically a psychoactive drug, in the depressant class. Although it is chemically similar to other drugs, alcohol has a different role in society and culture.

The Prevalence of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports that alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States, with one in every 12 people experiencing alcohol dependence or abuse.[i] They report that millions more drink in ways that put them at risk. Alcohol contributes to a wide range of health problems and is the third-most common lifestyle-related cause of death in the country.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that alcohol and tobacco are the drugs most commonly abused by adolescents.[ii] Unfortunately, the earlier in life that a drug is consumed, the more likely it is to cause dependence. NCADD reports that people who begin using alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop problems with dependence or abuse than people who didn’t begin drinking until after the age of 21.[iii]

The first step in the journey of recovery is realizing that a problem exists. This may be more difficult for people who are addicted to alcohol than to many other drugs because the rates of alcohol abuse and risky behavior are so high. It is easy to come to the conclusion that disordered drinking patterns are normal. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that in 2013, nearly a quarter of all adults reported engaging in binge drinking within the past month.[iv]

Differences in Treatment for Alcoholism or Drug Addiction

Once a problem has been identified, the next step is detoxification, or detox. During detox, patients undergo withdrawal while being monitored and kept as safe and comfortable as possible. Alcohol and other central nervous system depressants can cause serious withdrawal symptoms that are more potentially dangerous than those caused by some other classes of drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that alcohol withdrawal can involve seizures, gastrointestinal bleeding, hepatic failure, cardiomyopathy, encephalopathy and dysregulation of pulse, temperature and blood pressure.[v]

After detox, active addiction treatment begins. Because alcohol addiction is such a common problem, there are many treatment facilities able to address it. People who have developed addiction to a less common drug may have fewer treatment options than those whose drug of choice is alcohol. Also, although insurance coverage for all types of addiction is improving, insurers have a longer history of covering alcoholism than they do of covering addiction to other substances, which may make the insurance reimbursement process easier.

Part of addiction treatment is identifying and learning to address relapse triggers. Cravings to return to drug or alcohol use are often triggered by sensory cues, such as sights, sounds and smells associated with former behaviors. Patients are taught to avoid these as much as possible. Avoidance of triggering cues is likely to be harder for people recovering from alcohol addiction than it is for users of most other drugs because alcohol is legal and widely consumed in public.

Building a New Life

It is very wise for people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction to join a support group. This can provide many benefits, including learning from others, building emotional bonds, and providing an avenue for substance-free social activities. People recovering from alcohol addiction will generally have no trouble finding a support group in their area. Sometimes, people recovering from addiction to other drugs have a more difficult time.

There are many recovery tasks involved in building a new life. One is to develop new hobbies and interests. Sometimes people who have suffered from addiction for many years have trouble knowing what their true interests are. Counselors may recommend that people start by returning to something that interested them before substance abuse began. Because many people recovering from alcohol addiction started using alcohol at such a young age, they may not have fully developed their interests before alcohol became a priority. It may take more time and experimentation to find substance-free activities that are the best fit for them.

Your Journey of Recovery Can Begin Today

If you or a loved one has become addicted to drugs or alcohol, we can help you find the treatment program that is right for you. Our helpline is toll-free and available 24 hours a day. We can help you identify your options and can even check your insurance coverage for you if you wish, at no cost or obligation. Addiction is a treatable disease. Why not start the journey of recovery today?


[i] “Facts about Alcohol,” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., July 25, 2015, (December 24, 2015).

[ii] “What Drugs are Most Frequently Used by Adolescents?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2014, (December 24, 2015).

[iii] “Alcohol, Drugs and Youth,” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., July 25, 2015, (December 24, 2015).

[iv] “Alcohol Facts and Statistics,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, March 2015, (December 24, 2015).

[v] “Physical Detoxification Services for Withdrawal from Specific Substances,” Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2006, (December 24, 2015).